Mike Leigh’s Pirates

20 May

To me, the most remarkable and reassuring thing about the performance of Mike Leigh’s production of Pirates of Penzance at ENO on 19th May was the reaction of the audience. First, I was slightly surprised that the place was packed. Secondly, they were laughing at the jokes, enjoying the music and cheering at the end. This wasn’t a respectful audience sitting through an exhumation but people having a lovely time. It was as if many of them hadn’t seen the piece before, or not for a long time, and were surprised at how good it was.
I think that if I were trying a newcomer out on G&S, Pirates is probably the one I’d take them to. It’s among the most concise and has the freshness and confidence of youth. The situations and dialogue have that deadpan daftness that, as I’ve remarked before, isn’t a million miles from Monty Python or Blackadder and Sullivan’s music is among his most enchanting. There are lovely examples of his ability to set words that are, frankly rude or unpleasant to the most gorgeous melody (Ah is there not one maiden here/whose homely face and bad complexion/has caused all hope to disappear/of ever winning man’s affection) so that his music is undercut by Gilbert’s words. The essence of the operettas is here.

Since Topsy Turvy everyone knows that Mike is a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.  So what would he make of this? The joy was that he trusted the piece absolutely. He had clearly spent most of the rehearsal period working on getting the lines across and making them work in their own right. There wasn’t a single moment when you felt that the delivery was flat or wrong and many when you heard something fresh. He demonstrated that you didn’t need extravagant routines to make the Paradox trio work. The very simple choreography for the police was funny because of the deadpan simplicity of it. I’ve noted that the opera often feels slightly flat at the beginning. Here, I wasn’t conscious of that. It didn’t appear to try too hard, it simply delivered the work for what it was. Years of routine had been scrubbed away. And it worked.

Alison Chitty’s sets were simple but neatly reduced the size of the Coliseum stage to fit a pretty small chorus. The costumes might have come from the D’Oyly Carte costume box but were none the worse for that and the routines, the gags were notable for their absence. The wit and charm and silliness came across.

It was matched by a very clean musical performance. David Parry conducted clearly, relishing the beauties, considerate to his singers and enjoying the ridiculousness of With cat-like tread and the quiet wit of the Policeman’s song. The orchestra played really well.  Perhaps it was a bit too clean.  I bet that the original orchestra was a bit rougher than this and I bet that they weren’t nearly so restrained when the big tune came in early on in the overture.  On the other hand, you heard the details and the wit and the tempi felt right.

And there was a really nice cast. Joshua Bloom made a superbly confident, jovial Pirate King, Jonathan Lemalu caught the melancholy of the Sergeant of Police, Claudia Boyle was a very witty Mabel, recognising that Poor Wand’ring One is a comedy number but also singing the more serious side very well. Robert Murray was a nicely bewildered Frederic, who sang his arias with great skill. Rebecca du Pont Davies was a less melodramatic Ruth than many but put the role across well. Andrew Shore was an expert Major General and I really liked the idea that I am the very model was a well-rehearsed routine between him and his daughters who were eagerly awaiting the “sat a gee” joke – a nice overturning of years of tradition. This was one of the few occasions when I have seen opera singers doing dialogue in a way that worked.

Having said all that and recorded my immense admiration for the work, it would be dishonest not to note a couple of problems. The first is the size of the Coliseum. Gilbert and Sullivan were writing for much smaller theatres and, if you are stripping away all the routines and taking it as seriously as this, it can’t help feeling slightly lost. There was just a slight sense of artists bellowing to get the dialogue across, of good young singers who were stretched to their limits by the auditorium. I wonder how it all came across at the back of the balcony. It felt a bit small and I wished that it were being done in a smaller theatre.

Secondly, this very clean approach reminded me slightly of Giulini conducting Trovatore or Rigoletto – you wish, just occasionally that he’d let his hair down and stop being so serious and puritanical.Parry’s conducting of the overture was a tad too exact. I also thought that there was more scope for fun. Climbing over rocky mountains is a gem of a number but you can have some nice jokes there, I’ve seen many funnier Tarantara numbers which have not gone over the top but had the audience rolling in the aisles and I think that a director can allow himself this without compromising a serious approach elsewhere. And it was this absence of something visual to match the daftness of the plot and the exuberance of the music that I missed and which just stopped this being a classic Pirates.

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